Style, substance, and “kumbaya”

Obama is committed to making major progressive change, and hasn’t promised conservatives and moderates anything else. All he’s promising is not to act like a left-wing Ann Coulter and tell people that conservatives smell funny and run over little old ladies for sport.

In the matter of Barack Obama and the “all this kumbaya stuff,” it seems to me that Kevin Drum, along with most of the commentariat, confuses style with substance. It’s not that I don’t think style is important: on the contrary. But they’re not the same thing. Barack Obama promises a less divisive style of politics, and of governing. He isn’t going to try to convince all non-conservatives that conservatives are personally and morally repulsive. (He probably doesn’t even think that’s true.)

But Obama is not committed to a “moderate” or “centrist,” or even an incrementalist, administration. I don’t expect him to try to launch a second New Deal, because I don’t think the votes would be there in Congress, but if he did he wouldn’t have to eat a single word he’s said so far in the campaign.

* Obama is committed to getting out of Iraq.

* Obama is unequivocally committed to ending torture (which Hillary Clinton for example, isn’t), and has actually done something about it.

* Obama wants to reduce the number of black people in prison and thinks mandatory sentences unduly impinge on judicial independence. (And the Hillary folks have put out the word that he’s “soft on crime.”)

* Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich to pay for social programs for the poor. In the same interview where he dared to mention Republican ideas without spitting, thus drawing the fury of the Clintonites, Obama specified tax-cutting as an idea that had been tried and found wanting. (Hillary Clinton, in the meantime, says she’s against lifting the payroll tax cap because people shouldn’t have to “send more of their hard-earned dollars to Washington.”)

* Obama wants to make sure that the full burden of globalization doesn’t fall on workers in import-substitutable industries.

He’s not hiding any of that: it’s all completely up front.

Nor is Obama committed to being nice to conservative politicians or power centers. (He’s not the candidate looking to do a deal with Rupert Murdoch.) He hasn’t forgotten the lessons of community organizing. He proposes to give the drug companies and health insurers a seat at the table in working out a health-care plan. But he also proposes to put C-SPAN cameras at that table, and make them negotiate in public, so that everyone can see if they’re being obstructionist. If you think about it, that’s a pretty nasty tactic. It might even work.

So what is the “kumbaya” promise? Merely to treat conservatives and their ideas without contempt, and to give a fair hearing to the claim that this or that cherished liberal policy may be past its “use-by” date. (For example, he thinks that race-based affirmative action needs to morph into class-based affirmative action; his daughters, as he says, are socially positioned to compete on their own merits without any special edge.)

I simply can’t track Kevin’s notion that Obama is either sincere about “kumbaya” (in which case all of us progressives will get screwed) or insincere (in which case the conservatives will get screwed). He’s perfectly sincere about wanting to make major progressive change without using demonization as a primary political tactic. And I think he’s sincere about getting beyond the “liberal conservatism” that defends to the death everything that was ever called a liberal program.

But all he’s promising conservatives is R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Insofar as they’re deeply committed to conservative policies (rather than conservative values) he fully intends to screw them. He’s just willing to kiss them first. And tell them how much he loves them afterwards.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: